Historical Culture Context
Scholars do not consider Matthew’s report about the Magi who come to visit Jesus at his birth as historical fact. It is rather a rich, traditional reflection upon Scripture, perhaps the story of Balaam in Numbers 22-24, intended to demonstrate that Gentile believers are an integral part of God’s plan from the very beginning!
In Matthew’s story line, representatives from the nations to whom the risen Jesus sends his disciples (Mt 28:19) are already present at the beginning of Jesus’ life (Gospel).
Just as our ancestors in the Faith frequently reflected upon and interpreted their scriptures creatively to help them understand and explain Jesus, so too did their Christian descendants throughout the ages continue that creative reflection upon Matthew’s story of the Magi’s visit to the newborn Jesus.
In this latter process, the number of visitors (never mentioned by Matthew) varied from two (see the art in the Roman catacombs of Sts. Peter and Marcellinus) to twelve (in some medieval Eastern lists).
Matthew’s mention of three gifts prompted the conclusion that there were three visitors.
Early on (end of the second century), these Magi, or astrologers/astronomers (these disciplines were not yet distinct), were elevated to royalty.
A tradition dating from about A.D. 700 describes one of the visitors as “black-skinned and heavily bearded” and named Balthasar.
John J. Pilch
**From Saint Louis University